In her Black-passing, Krug evokes Rachel Dolezal, the White woman who assumed a Black identity and rode out the Black cosplay so far as to become a leader in the Spokane, Wash., NAACP. It worked, until Dolezal claimed she had been the victim of hate crimes and was called out by her White parents.
But Krug managed to out-Dolezal Dolezal — not only asserting her own Blackness, in its various forms, but also calling out others who she felt weren’t Black enough. She assumed an activist name, going by “Jess La Bombalera,” adopting an obviously phony accent and marketing herself as an expert in salsa and diasporic dance.
And where Dolezal at least seemed to have somehow convinced herself that she was actually Black — “It’s not a costume,” she insisted — Krug fully understood, with every chapter in her assumed identity, that she was crafting and deepening a series of blatant lies.
Listed on GWU’s Department of History as expert in imperialism and colonialism, Krug confessed in her frenzy of self-flagellation that what she had done was “the very epitome of violence, of thievery and appropriation, of the myriad ways in which non-Black people continue to use and abuse Black identities and cultures.“ Oh, the dark irony of it all. Pun intended.
As a former African Studies student, I know that African Studies has no shortage of White scholars — so much so that actual Black African scholars complain of the Whiteness and gatekeeping of the field. What would possess someone to so betray the trust of Black friends, associates, students and entire academic departments? Krug blamed her literal impostor syndrome on childhood trauma and “unaddressed mental health demons.”
But there is something more sinister at work here, something more disturbing in the harm she inflicted on Black people. “Karen” has emerged in 2020 to describe White women’s tendency to exploit their privilege to discipline Black people — for example, summoning police with sometimes devastating consequences. The Krug story offers a twisted example of asserting a different form of White privilege, the audacity of assuming the identity of a marginalized group.
“I am not a culture vulture,” she wrote. “I am a culture leech.” In that, she is not alone. It’s a motif that replays itself repeatedly in pop culture, from Gwen Stefani to Miley Cyrus to Kim Kardashian, who have been called out for profiting from performative Blackness only to discard the act when it no longer suits them.
Krug used her assumed identity to gain access, acclaim and a plush professorship at an expensive university. But hers was power still rooted in harmful stereotypes. In the first line of an article bio, she calls herself an “unrepentant … child of the hood” — as if to be authentically Black, you must have come up poor.
In many African societies, the first question for strangers is about “who your people are.” Meaning: Who are your parents? What is your tribe? Who can vouch for you? Maybe this is why in her book, “Fugitive Modernities,” Krug conveniently — gallingly — pays tribute to “my ancestors, unknown, unnamed, who bled life into a future they had no reason to believe could or should exist. … Those whose names I cannot say for their own safety, whether in my barrio, in Angola, or in Brazil.”
So how did Krug get away with this charade? Part of the uncomfortable answer is colorism, and the particular way in which that operates for women. Biracial and light-skinned women have always been given more access, power and visibility than darker-skinned women, even within our own communities. When we complain about it, we are called angry and bitter.
I wonder how many darker-skinned women were passed over in favor of Krug in activist and academic spaces. Even in 2020, proximity to physical Whiteness remains a privilege that causes harm and erasure to those who fail the notorious brown paper bag test — used in the past by selective Black organizations and establishments as a colorist admissions guide.
The professional reckoning for Krug has begun. On Friday night, the GWU Department of History released a statement calling on Krug to resign and threatening to move to revoke her tenure if she doesn’t comply voluntarily.
But this is the United States. I wouldn’t be surprised if Krug fails up and is offered a demented self-redemption tour in the form of a book deal and a Netflix documentary, just like Dolezal. In 2020 in this country, Whiteness still carries a lot of privilege — including, perhaps, the privilege to get away with pretending to be Black.